The children at Jefferson Elementary School in Ottawa see Bob McGrath’s face on the side of their school building every morning, depicting the colorful world of Sesame Street.
McGrath is featured in artist Vicki Crone’s “Imagine and Learn with Bob McGrath” mural along with several students from Jefferson’s past and Sesame Street characters.
Jefferson Elementary teacher Lisa Carrier’s grandfather knew McGrath from the same center-of-Ottawa neighborhood near Marquette Academy, where McGrath graduated high school in 1950.
“It just never hit me growing up in the same neighborhood because we’d be at grandpa’s house or out walking around and just casually run into Bob McGrath,” Carrier said. “Of course, it would always be around holiday time when he was home visiting. We always seemed to run into him at the Hi-Way Restaurant.”
Carrier said McGrath was an ordinary, down-to-earth guy that just happened to be from her grandpa’s neighborhood. That normal, down-to-earth guy also happened to be part of a mural on the side of Jefferson Elementary School and a 46-year cast member of Sesame Street.
McGrath — one of the original actors in Sesame Street — died at the age of 90, according to a social media post from his family.
“I don’t even know if the kids now would recognize him but there’s always interest in the mural,” Carrier said. “They know the characters, you know. Big Bird and Elmo.”
If the children don’t know about McGrath, Carrier said she plans on teaching them about his accomplishments.
McGrath’s childhood growing up in La Salle County is documented in the 2008 book, “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” by Michael Davis. McGrath grew up on a farm between Ottawa and Grand Ridge without electricity until first grade. The book also documents his reputation as a talented singer grew quickly throughout the Ottawa area, as he attended St. Columba, then Marquette.
McGrath left Ottawa after 1950 to attend the University of Michigan even though his original plan, was to follow his brother to study engineering at the University of Illinois.
Plans changed when McGrath received a scholarship from the Ottawa Federation of Music to attend a music camp near Chicago.
Following the encouragement he received at the camp, he decided to study music at the University of Michigan. Years later, he met with a former fraternity brother who wanted him to audition for a children’s TV show.
From that audition on, McGrath portrayed Bob the music teacher, living on Sesame Street for 46 years before the show underwent a format change in 2016. In those 46 years, McGrath recorded a dozen albums, wrote eight books, narrated a dozen “Sesame Street” e-books and performed in telethons and concerts.
“Meeting folks who grew up with the show, hearing their stories and how the show impacted them as children is a reminder of the power of the show,” McGrath told the late former Times features editor Mike Murphy. “Having the opportunity to spend three or four days with the cast who are really like family could not be more rewarding.”
McGrath was a proponent of exposing children to the arts, believing it important for them to experience listening and seeing live music and dancing.
Former Write Team columnist Samuel Barbour wrote about McGrath in a June 13, 2019, column celebrating the actor’s birthday.
“I like to think that Bob McGrath brought the Illinois Valley with him when he went to New York City,” Barbour wrote. “Sesame Street is, of course, a reflection of the polyglot metropolis where it was created, but through the magic of television it’s become part of the culture everywhere in the United States.”
McGrath’s career expanded beyond just his role on Sesame Street. He appeared on Mitch Miller’s “Sing Along with Mitch” show on NBC. He also sang Irish and American folk songs translated into Japanese and appeared with more than 100 symphony orchestras, including playing his final show in 2019 with “The President’s Own” Marine Chamber Orchestra in Arlington, Virginia for the groups 220th anniversary.
“Helping the Marines celebrate their anniversary was a true honor,” McGrath said. “I can’t think of a more exciting way to wrap up my career performing with symphony orchestras. It was a bittersweet moment when the auditorium filled with children and their families joined me to sing one of my all-time favorite sings, ‘Sing a song.’ ”
“A revered performer worldwide, Bob’s rich tenor filled airwaves and concert halls from Las Vegas to Saskatchewan to Tokyo many times over,” Sesame Workshop said in a statement. “We will be forever grateful for his many years of passionate creative contributions to Sesame Street and honored that he shared so much of his life with us.”
He is survived by his wife, Ann Logan Sperry, and their five children.